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What is Public Scholarship?

February 27, 2023

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What is Public Scholarship?

What is public scholarship? What does it mean to be a public scholar? Or a publicly engaged scholar? Or to do community engagement? These are valid questions. Thankfully, and for simplicity’s sake, I’ve counted no less than two dozen published definitions and explanations. Just try googling ‘public scholarship’ or ‘public engagement.’ Woof.

Public scholarship can mean so many different things to different scholars, disciplines, institutions of higher education, governing bodies, etc. Everyone has their own take on it. And for good reason. Because science, research, and scholarship exist on the widest of spectrums.

And consider how this all relates to incentivizing scholars to extend their research beyond the confines of the academy. The challenge with developing RPT standards, impact measurements, and guidelines is that every discipline, unit, college, institution of higher education, national organization, government, etc. defines the noun and the verb differently. 

Public Scholarship Synonyms 

I launched (Cintron, Revised) referring to ‘the act of translating research for the public’ (my very simplistic operational definition) as public scholarship. Since then, I’ve opted to use the term ‘public engagement’ as a fail safe catch all. ‘Science communication’ appears to be the more widely used term, but personally it feels a bit exclusionary to me, considering the arts, humanities, and aspects of social sciences.

How many ways can we refer to public scholarship? Oh, let me count the ways. For starters, Imagining America’s white paper on engagement in the arts, humanities, and design fields, refer to community engagement as “publicly engaged academic work, public scholarship, public engagement, public scholarly and creative work, community partnerships, and civic agency.”  Those of us who are publicly engaged scholars are referred to as “publicly engaged humanists, civically engaged scholars, civic agency, engaged scholars, and civic professionals.”

In the medical field, this type of work is referred to as clinical and translational science, which bridges the gap between laboratory discovery and practice. And then there is… 

  • science communication
  • scicomm (as the cool kids say)
  • research communication
  • civic engagement
  • public outreach
  • thought leadership
  • public scholarly and creative work
  • civically engaged scholarship
  • participatory research
  • public information networks
  • civic literacy
  • outreach scholarship
  • …and countless others.

Which do you prefer?

Defining Public Scholarship

Now that we have one million ways to refer to public scholarship, how is it defined?


There is a robust research agenda supporting public scholarship and public engagement. So you already know there are loads of operational definitions, depending on the study, context, etc. For example, “public engagement is understood to include any effort that might see members of the scientific community trying to engage, primarily through communication, with people outside of their area of research.” Science communication is “the exchange of information and viewpoints about science to achieve a goal or objective such as fostering greater understanding of science and scientific methods or gaining greater insight into diverse public views and concerns about the science related to a contentious issue”.

Public scholarship is “scholarly activity generating new knowledge through academic reflection on issues of community engagement. It integrates research, teaching, and service. It does not assume that useful knowledge simply flows outward from the university to the larger community. It recognizes that new knowledge is created in its application in the field, and therefore benefits the teaching and research mission of the university.”

On a macro level, members of the Global Science Communication community provided their own (or preferred) definition of science communication (guided by the GlobalScape initiative).


Organizations like the Carnegie Foundation, which established the Community Engagement elective classification, focuses on the term ‘community engagement’ as a “collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional/state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity”.

The American Association for the Advancement of Sciences’ define public engagement with science as “intentional, meaningful interactions that provide opportunities for mutual learning between scientists and the public”. Kellogg Commission defines engagement in relation “to institutions that have redesigned their teaching, research, and extension and service functions to become even more sympathetically and productively involved with their communities, however community may be defined.” 

The Metcalf Institute defines science communication as “any information exchange that engages audiences in learning, conversations, or activities related to STEMM – science, technology, engineering, math, or medicine.” 


And of course, there are operational definitions at the university level. Michigan State University defines outreach scholarship as “a scholarly endeavor that cross-cuts teaching, research [and creative activities], and service. It involves generating, transmitting, applying, and preserving knowledge for the direct benefit of external audiences in ways that are consistent with university and unit missions.”

The University of Minnesota define public engagement as “the partnership of university knowledge and resources with those of the public and private sectors to enrich scholarship, research, and creative activity; enhance curriculum, teaching and learning; prepare educated, engaged citizens; strengthen democratic values and civic responsibility; address critical societal issues; and contribute to the public good.” These definitions are more inclusive of the university setting, for obvious reasons.

It is clear we all have our own perspective of what science/research/public communication is. There is a through-line . Along with references to partnerships, reciprocity, collaboration with communities are a few references to communication. You can also see this through RPT standards at many universities. 

What does public scholarship look like in action?

There are so many ways in which you can be public engaged! The default idea of public scholarship in action is writing op-eds. Yes this is an option, but there is so much more! You can communicate your research to the public by: 

  • writing a book (fiction or nonfiction)
  • writing an op-ed
  • writing a letter to the editor
  • writing a newsletter
  • writing a blog
  • participating in media interviews
  • writing policy statements & briefs
  • starting a podcast or podcast series
  • building a new social media following
  • creating and sharing infographics and data visualizations
  • writing white papers
  • launching a vlog or youtube channel
  • becoming a consultant
  • engaging in community partnerships and research
  • being an expert witness
  • launching a website
  • creating comics
  • writing poetry
  • writing short stories
  • writing a play
  • developing a documentary
  • developing a film or television script
  • create works of art
  • leading a ted talk
  • hosting community talks & discussions
  • creating music and songs
  • holding public science talks
  • via carrier pigeon and bat signal
  • …and countless others.

Communicating your research to the public can be whatever you want, making it an overwhelming endeavor. Figuring out which output works for you and your audience is a process. We’re all not going to write a documentary or draw a comic, but we could (somewhat) easily create accessible data visualizations to share on social media along with the research paper. Or just as easily speak about your research in an accessible way to a group of students!

So, where do we go from here? 

You can choose to live within or outside the constraints of an operational definition of public scholarship. Or you can just do the work. I am highlighting the terminology and definitions to bring attention the uniqueness and specificity of public engagement. It is not a turnkey or one-size-fits-all type of endeavor. Remembering the core tenets of public scholarship is the key. Serving the public, working in partnership with the community, elevating the applicability of science, research, and knowledge into the lives of people who could benefit from it. (while also addressing our own assumptions about communicating to/with the public.) 

It is important to establish flexible guidelines and standards within the RPT process, allowing the scholar to justify their public scholarship. Without this, and with an imbalanced incentive structure in higher education, how can we further promote science, knowledge, and public good?

Bringing these concepts together – what is public scholarship, how it is defined, and how it is done in practice – is the challenge. It requires levels of institutional hierarchies to be on the same page. A bottom-up approach in conjunction with top-down support is a great start. It requires support from national and international organizations. It requires flexibility and a tender embrace from all involved. So let’s get to it, people! 

If you are ready to get started on your public scholarship journey, schedule your free strategy session with us today! 

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Alicia Cintron, PhD

Research Public Communications Trainer & Coach + traveling Scholarpreneur

Welcome! Here you’ll find insight, musings, and thoughts about research, public engagement, communication, travel, and higher education. Have an idea for a topic for us to cover? Shoot us a note

Alicia Cintron, PhD

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